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Fresh Battle Lines Drawn In Russia's Culture Wars

Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov (center), who was accused of embezzling state funds and placed under house arrest, is kissed by a supporter after a court hearing in Moscow in September.
Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov (center), who was accused of embezzling state funds and placed under house arrest, is kissed by a supporter after a court hearing in Moscow in September.

Outside the doors to the Moscow courthouse, the crowd of supporters, and reporters, swelled into the hundreds. Inside, one of Russia's most famous theater directors was on trial for embezzlement. Just meters away, on a street corner, a young woman stood with a small sign: "Return our artist to us."

Such are the times in Russia, where art -- theater, literature, painting, music, film -- has again become a political battleground, where left and right fight over values and culture with increasing intensity.

In President Vladimir Putin's current term alone, the country's cultural space has already been buffeted by an artist who nailed his scrotum to Red Square and the jailing of masked musicians whose collective sobriquet, Pussy Riot, became a byword for protest.

But for many observers, the fervor of debate and clashes in the past year over what constitutes art has been symptomatic of creeping authoritarianism under Putin and the conservative, nationalist, and sometimes religious agenda that may keep him in the Kremlin longer than any leader since Stalin.

A Russian film about the last tsar and his Polish mistress attracted angry protests and threats against cinema owners. An acclaimed director branded himself a "coward" and denounced his own TV spy series as "defending the regime." And the prolific artistic director of Moscow's avant-garde Gogol Center was charged with financial crimes after clashing publicly with Russia's culture minister.

Under Putin, artists have gone from being "neutral" outsiders to being pulled into the country's cultural struggles, says Marat Guelman, an influential Moscow gallery owner who once clashed with cultural authorities over artwork that satirized the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

"Now it's not just enough to be for Putin," Guelman says. "We've arrived at the moment in time when the administration doesn't just want loyalty, not just those who have joined Putin. They want people who are united in their thinking with the administration. They want to work people who say: 'We are patriots. We are for isolation. My creative work is against America, against liberals.'"

Keeping Things 'Traditional'

As recently as a month before his August arrest, the Gogol Center's Kirill Serebrennikov had clashed with outspoken Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky over a new ballet based on the life of famed Soviet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.

Serebrennikov's production, to be staged at the Bolshoi Theater, alluded to Nureyev's sexual orientation, and the Bolshoi director later announced a postponement. Though no official reason was given, Medinsky reportedly disapproved of the homosexual references in an echo of a controversial 2013 law criminalizing the propaganda of "nontraditional sexual relationships" to minors.

Serebrennikov's detention on accusations of embezzling state funds for another project stunned Russia's artistic community. Many saw Serebrennikov's domestic and international accolades as sources of pride for the country's rich artistic traditions.

It was Serebrennikov's first appearance in court that drew hundreds to the Moscow street, many carrying signs and photographs and jeering the proceedings.

Kirill Serebrennikov flashes a victory sign as he attends a court hearing in Moscow on December 4.
Kirill Serebrennikov flashes a victory sign as he attends a court hearing in Moscow on December 4.

Before his detention, Serebrennikov was outspoken in his condemnation of the 2013 law and the detention of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov for allegedly planning terrorist acts in Crimea after its occupation by Russia in 2014. Serebrennikov was also vocal in his support of Pussy Riot, the performance-art group whose members served prison time over a music video criticizing Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church that was filmed inside a Moscow cathedral.

Serebrennikov's arrest may turn out to be a watershed moment, according to John Freedman, who has been the Moscow Times' theater critic since the English-language paper's founding in 1992.

Russia's creative classes "realize that the state's choice to go after art through the way it is funded is a danger to everyone who engages in art in Russia," Freedman said in an e-mail to RFE/RL. "The laws are a mess. It is virtually impossible for a theater manager, for example, to keep his theater running without breaking laws. This has been true for years and even decades."

Not Just For Art's Sake

Unlike during the Soviet era, when nearly all artists had to work under official auspices, Russian artists and cultural figures had relatively free rein during the tumultuous presidency of Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and, until recently, Putin's tenure. Even critics acknowledge that writers, painters, sculptors, and musicians could largely publish, paint, build, and perform more or less what they were inspired to do.

Early in Putin's presidency, however, the Kremlin moved to take over the country's TV networks, foreshadowing limits on the medium for artistic expression. The economic boom of the 2000s gave government agencies -- the Culture Ministry, above all -- more money to hand out to artists.

In the meantime, a donor class of uber-wealthy, well-connected businessmen invested in artistic projects that helped showcase the country's talent. Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by Dasha Zhukova and her billionaire ex-husband, gained renown in international circles for promoting pioneering artists in an avant-garde venue.

Established artists, such as conductor Valery Gergiyev, the venerated artistic director of St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater, were lavished with state funds and support. Last year, Gergiyev's orchestra was flown to the Syrian ruins of Palmyra to perform a live televised concert in celebration of Russian forces' military successes there.

Russian conductor Valery Gergiyev leads a concert in the amphitheater of the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2016.
Russian conductor Valery Gergiyev leads a concert in the amphitheater of the ancient city of Palmyra in May 2016.

But other artists were openly scornful of perceived rigidity in the Putin era and groups like the notorious street-art group Voina embraced political protest as a form of performance art. Acts were already testing the limits of official tolerance, in particular with respect to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin's return to the presidency in 2012, after four years as prime minister for his protege Dmitry Medvedev, was a tipping point for art and politics, Guelman says.

On the heels of major street protests following contentious parliamentary elections and with Putin poised to retake the Kremlin, Pussy Riot in February 2012 shot its now-famous video that sparked a landmark trial and landed three of its members in custody -- two for prison terms.

One year later, with the Kremlin-backed United Russia party dominant, lawmakers passed the law on gay "propaganda" and another law that indirectly targeted some forms of artistic expression. The other, on "offending believers," made it a criminal offense to insult individuals' religious sensibilities.

Such legislation prompted a backlash not only within Russia's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and artistic communities but also in the West, where some leaders boycotted the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

'Catalyzing' Effect

Guelman was one of many artists who mocked the Sochi Olympics, which were the costliest in history and dogged by accusations of corruption. Guelman was fired in the run-up to the games after lampooning their preparations in an exhibition at a museum in the Urals city of Perm.

Guelman, who now spends most of his time abroad, was also an outspoken supporter of Pussy Riot. He says their cathedral performance came at a moment when the country had experienced a burst of liberal optimism under Medvedev and was wary of compromise with the government.

Pussy Riot changed that, he says. "They created something in direct contradiction to Putin."

"You also have to understand what happened at that moment in time. It was a moment when apathy, among our circles, was great -- that there was nothing to be done: 'Putin is bad, but he's not going anywhere, and we can't do anything about it,'" Guelman explains. "And yet these girls managed to do something."

Russia -- Members of Pussy Riot sing a protest song against Vladimir Putin and the support of the Orthodox Church for him in Moscow'as main cathedral.
Russia -- Members of Pussy Riot sing a protest song against Vladimir Putin and the support of the Orthodox Church for him in Moscow'as main cathedral.

Pussy Riot, in turn, inspired one of Russia's most shocking performance artists. Pyotr Pavlensky made his own name sewing his mouth shut to draw attention to Pussy Riot's plight, nailing his scrotum to the cobblestones outside the Kremlin to protest public indifference, and otherwise challenging the government and Russian society.

"The authorities themselves catalyzed this with their punitive action against the group Pussy Riot," Pavlensky told RFE/RL's Russian Service in 2016. Earlier this year, he and his partner fled Russia and sought political asylum in France.

Mark Teeter, a Moscow-based Russian-language professor and longtime TV critic for the Moscow Times, says artists of an earlier generation who have remained resolute in their contempt for the authorities include Yury Shevchuk, front man for the rock band DDT.

"Various artists have refused to be intimidated, and shown it by more conventional means than nailing their scrotums to something downtown," Teeter says. "Rock artists of my generation have kept on doing what they do with undisguised contempt for" Putin.

While Putin has weighed in periodically on far-reaching cultural legislation -- he endorsed the gay "propaganda" law and called Pussy Riot "talented girls" -- it's Medinsky who has led the charge against art deemed inappropriate.

The Culture Ministry is among the largest sources of funding for artistic projects, so its ability to approve or influence directors, gallery owners, or performers is unmatched. (The embezzlement charges against Serebrennikov stem from a project involving a Shakespeare play that received state money.)

At least one prominent director has openly lamented a willingness -- his own and others' -- to sacrifice artistry in the service of the Kremlin. After his TV series Sleepers debuted, lionizing Russian security agents battling CIA sleeper cells, director Yury Bykov apologized, saying he had "betrayed" his fans by "defending the regime." The series was funded by the Culture Ministry and produced by Fyodor Bondarchuk, a filmmaker who is also on United Russia's top council.

In the meantime, religious and nationalist groups have also stepped into the culture wars, taking on the feature film Matilda, which depicts a romantic affair of Tsar Nicholas II, who has been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. One group calling itself Christian State-Holy Rus threatened this year to burn down cinemas if they showed the film, and director Aleksei Uchitel's office in St. Petersburg was hit with Molotov cocktails.

Three years before he ended up in a Moscow jail cell, Serebrennikov gave an interview to online culture website in which he was blunt about his country's future.

Russia "is an unbelievably dark and ignorant country," he warned, "and it's only getting darker."

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.